Saturday, March 23, 2013

2 Concrete Steps To Combat Sexism At Tech Conferences

One of the people who commented on my recent post on sexism in high tech made a very good point.  Beth noted, "What's our take away. What do we want, exactly? It'd be easier to speak to both sides if we had a clear objective."

I'm far from an expert on effecting social change.  In fact, I'd probably have been voted "Least Likely To Protest For A Cause" when I was in high school.  But I do think we need to identify some concrete steps we can take to combat sexism at tech conference.

As usual, I recommend drawing on analogous successful efforts that took place in the past.  Here's two concrete steps, one reactive, and one proactive.

1) We can take a similar approach to sexism that we took to hate speech and sexual harassment--draw a line, and punish those who cross it.  Both hate speech bans and sexual harassment training are far from perfect, but both evils have declined greatly in this country during the past 20 years.

In practice, this means that conferences could adopt a clear set of guidelines for what is unacceptable behavior.  I'm not the right person to write these guidelines, but if wiser folks did write them up and conferences started adopting them, I think it would make a huge difference.

First, people would have clear rules to help prevent them from unintentionally offending or harming others.

Second, any women who felt uncomfortable about a situation would have clear rules to cite, which would help put the "lighten up" argument to rest.

Third, anyone who wanted to argue against the chilling effect of speech restrictions would have to explicitly explain why he disagreed with a rule against mocking people using gender stereotypes, or telling sexual jokes in a public setting.

It's not so easy to be tough when *you're* the one being asked to defend your actions, especially if they violated an explicit and official rule.

UPDATE: It's not even that hard to come up with a policy.  The Geek Feminism wiki already has a boilerplate one you can adopt for your particular conference/co-working space.


2) We can take a page from the NFL's playbook when it comes to speakers at conferences.  The NFL has the Rooney Rule which was established in 2003.  The rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions before deciding on a hire.  At the time the rule was instituted, there were only 2 minority head coaches, and there had only been 5 more during the entire 83-year existence of the NFL.

Since then 13 more minorities have been hired as NFL head coaches, and if you count coaches with multiple jobs, a minority has been hired as an NFL head coach 18 times since 2003.

In other words, before the Rooney Rule, the NFL hired a minority coach every 12 years (7 in 83 seasons) and afterwards, the NFL hired an average of 1.8 minority coaches per season.  That's a rate that's over 20 times higher.  That's palpable progress, without resorting to quotas.

One thing we could do is to adopt an unofficial Rooney Rule for panels; all panel organizers ought to invite at least one female speaker.  She might not accept, but that dramatically increase the number of invitations extended to women.

These are just two simple suggestions, but they are concrete, and I think they would go a long way toward making the overall environment in our industry more welcoming to women.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sexism in tech is like an onion--it has many layers and makes people cry

The big topic of discussion today is the fallout from the PyCon conference.  At the conference, former Adria Richards, who, at the time, worked in developer relations for SendGrid, heard two conference attendees behind her making jokes about "forking" and "dongles" in the sort of juvenile way that often happens in the tech industry.

Richards took a photo of the jokers and tweeted it: "Not cool. Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and "big" dongles. Right behind me

The results of this act were both serious and unexpected.

1) One of the developers pictured was fired by his company, PlayHaven.  He went on to explain his side of the story on Hacker News.  You can read Richards' side of the story on her blog.  (UPDATE: In an interview PlayHaven's CEO implied that the firing was for multiple reasons.  This could be true; for legal reasons, you'd certainly want to avoid commenting on the reasons for an employee's termination.  Sadly, even that article includes commenters calling for a DDoS attack on PlayHaven.)

2) Richards' then-employer, SendGrid, was heavily criticized for employing Richards, and came under a DDOS attack.  Note that PlayHaven was not attacked (more on this later).

3) SendGrid fired Richards, explaining its rationale in a Facebook post that has since been removed by the company, followed by a blog post that is still accessible:
A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.

In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger. Our commitment to our 130 employees, their families, our community members and our more than 130,000 valued customers is our primary concern.
4) The Internet went nuts with numerous blog posts criticizing and defending all involved.  Here are just a few of the ones I ran across:
Sexism in tech is like an onion--it has many layers and makes people cry.  Let's try to peel back the layers and deal with them one by one.

1) The joking developers were wrong to make juvenile jokes in a public setting.  mr-hank, who lost his job at PlayHaven, apologized on HackerNews:
First of all I'd like to say I'm sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position.
2) Richards was within her rights to post a photo of the developers on Twitter, and to criticize them publicly.  The conference is a public setting where numerous folks are tweeting and posting photos on a near-continuous basis, so there is no privacy argument to be made against Richards.

You could debate the magnitude of the offense (mr-hank felt that his words were misinterpreted), but deciding whether or not public criticism is justified based on the nature or magnitude of the offense is a slippery slope.  It's called "freedom of speech," not "freedom of speech that is justified by the circumstances."

When the Westboro Baptist Church goes out in public and makes homophobic statements, few would consider it out of line to tweet a photo with critical commentary.

I don't believe in victim one-upmanship ("My Holocaust was worse than your 200 years of slavery").  Wrong is wrong, and being able to publicly criticize someone for an action that even they admit is wrong is part of being a free society.

3) Both PlayHaven and SendGrid have to right to hire or fire anyone they choose.

I live in California, which is a "at-will" employment state.  I can be fired at any time, for any reason other than illegal discrimination, and that's a good thing for the economy.

Mr-hank was not discriminated against; PlayHaven had the right to fire him.  It's sad that someone with three kids, and who probably is a law-abiding citizen, lost a job he loved because of less than 30 seconds of bad behavior, but the fact is that he behaved badly.

Richards was not discriminated against.  SendGrid paid her to be a developer evangelist.  That's not a role she could easily fill given the controversy that sprang up.  And when an employee no longer adds value to a firm, that firm has the right to terminate that employee.

On the other hand, I can and will argue that PlayHaven overreacted.  Mr-hank's actions were wrong, but the punishment goes beyond what most would consider reasonable.  Richards simply wanted him to stop, and PyCon escorted him out PyCon staff met with them, at which point mr-hanks agreed his comments were in poor taste, and apologized.  At that point, I suspect she had no further desire to see him punished.

I have heard worse from numerous people over the years.  I speak up and let them know that their behavior is unacceptable, and they almost always curb that behavior.  I haven't had to fire anyone for that reason (though I wouldn't hesitate to do so if someone were habitually sexist/racist/etc., since that is not only morally wrong, but also exposes an employer to significant liability).

I also think that SendGrid's actions were rational but cowardly.  As I noted, if Richards can no longer be effective as a developer evangelist, it makes sense to terminate her.  SendGrid's blog post makes it clear that they terminated Richards because they felt that continuing to employ her would damage their business.  But doing so after suffering a DDOS attack sure makes it seem like they caved in to illegal outside pressure.

4) The string of events demonstrates the endemic sexism and immaturity of the high tech/startup community on a number of different levels.

a. It's immature to joke about things that are inappropriate for the workplace and could create an environment that is uncomfortable for women.

I know that's an unpopular stance, but allowing casual sexism is no different than allowing casual racism or religious discrimination.  The same folks who complain bitterly about people like me needing to "lighten up" would never accept usage of the "n word" or telling people that they're damned to hell.

b. It's sexist to tell women that they need to "lighten up" because of established community norms.   

There is a strong undercurrent of "this is how we've always done it," with the unsaid conclusion, "and this didn't happen before we started letting women into the club."

The fact that your hacker community tolerated similar behavior in the past doesn't make it right; it just means that you've always been sexist.

200 years ago, slavery was the established law of the land.  100 years ago, women couldn't vote.  50 years ago, it would have been illegal for my wife and I to marry, because I'm Chinese and she's Puerto Rican.  And today, it's still illegal for two people to marry, simply because they're the same gender.

Very few of Richards' attackers would argue that "this is how we've always done it" is a valid argument for banning gay marriage.  So why is it okay to apply it to telling jokes that make people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome?

c. It's sexist to single out women for attack.

Note that the mob attacked SendGrid, Richards' employer, because they blamed her for mr-hanks losing his job.  Richards didn't fire mr-hanks; PlayHaven did.  Any rational act of revenge would focus on the company that "wronged" him, not the women who sent a single tweet saying that a joke was "not cool."

Of course, the reaction was even worse; not only was it wrong-headedly directed at Richards, but the angry attacks included threats of violence and sexual violence.

d. It's immature to focus on attacking Richards as a person, rather than her action.

Numerous folks attached Richards as a person, saying they didn't like her, or that she herself had previously made jokes of a sexual nature on Twitter.

Seriously?

I thought we had long since gotten past the "she was asking for it" defense.

Richards' previous tweets make her a hypocrite.  They don't make her wrong.

Wrong is wrong.  While it seems like the internet runs on revenge, that doesn't make it right.

e. It's immature to try to ignore the controversy.

I get it.  This kind of controversy makes people feel uncomfortable.  It's natural to want to avoid the subject, much like I try not to watch movies with unhappy endings (Damn you, "Like Water for Chocolate"!  Nobody told me everyone dies at the end.).

But avoiding the controversy is not the same as remaining neutral.  There is no way to be neutral.  Either you want the community norms to change, or you don't.  Saying nothing is the same as agreeing with the status quo; change only happens when people take a stand.

You may feel that Richards makes a poor Rosa Parks.  It's certainly the case that change seems to happen more easily when led by a charismatic and saintly character (Parks, Gandhi, Jackie Robinson, et al).  But the character of the change agent shouldn't impact whether or not you should support a change.

Conclusions

It sucks that two companies overreacted, and two people lost their jobs.  But change doesn't proceed smoothly and fairly.  Change usually involves disruption and pain.

The startup/high-tech culture, *our* culture, needs to change so that it welcomes everyone who can contribute, regardless of gender, race, age, and beliefs.  And regardless of how young, male, atheist hackers feel, it's not universally welcoming.

PyCon was celebrating because over 20% of the attendees were women.  I would estimate that the vast majority of speakers at tech events are males, and the vast majority of panels at those same events are male-only.  There are good historical reasons for this; there weren't that many women studying computer science in the 1980s.  But that doesn't mean the current state of affairs is natural, preferable, or unchanging.

I believe in a startup/high-tech industry that welcomes everyone.  I know we're not there yet, but I believe that its worth working towards that vision.

Disclaimers

I don't know mr-hanks, though from his calm and reasoned Hacker News post, he seems like a thoughtful guy who made a bad choice in jokes and has paid for too much for it.

I've met Adria Richards before--ironically enough, she was one of the few women in the room when I spoke up about sexism (without malicious intent, but sexism nonetheless) at Mega Startup Weekend last year.  I don't her well enough to evaluate her job performance, but I can tell you that Richards did nothing wrong (even if her tweet did trigger PlayHaven's overreaction--she can't control their actions) and doesn't deserve the kind of unthinking hate and abuse that she's received.

I'm not a member of the Python community, and I wasn't at the conference, so all I know about what happened is what's publicly available.  But I won't accept the excuse of "this is how things are here" for bad behavior.